Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Apelles Palette

While in Boston, I got to watch Painter Anthony Apesos
demonstrate the Apelles Palette.
The following information is courtesy of the Color Academy website:

Apelles (c.370-c. 320 BCE). A central problem for the artist has always been exactly how to model form, and which colours or mixtures of colours to use in the highlights, halftones and shadows. Apelles was acknowledged as the principal advocate of the ancient tetrachrome palette, from which a wide range of colours, including all flesh-tints (pale to swarthy), could be mixed. Pliny writes of Apelles applying varnish to his paintings that ‘caused a radiance in the brightness of all the colours and protected the painting from dust and dirt’. The Alexander Mosaic at Pompeii is thought to have been copied from a painting by Apelles. Other notable artists of this time were A√ętion, Melanthius and Nikomachus. Of such artists as these, Pliny remarked, in Book 37.12 of his  
Natural History: Quattuor coloribus solis immortalia illa opera fecere (‘Four colours alone make their work immortal’).

Apelles’ palette: Gypsum White, White Clay (Melian White), Yellow Ochre, Red Ochre (Sinoper), Lamp Black, Bone Black, Vine Black (blue-black).
Reference: Don Pavey, Colour and Humanism (2003).
24" x 18" self portrait #1 done from life: Indian Red,
Yellow Ochre, Flake White and Ivory Black.
The basic constituents of the ancient four-colour palette were therefore Red Ochre, Yellow Ochre, Chalk White (Gypsum White) and Vine Black (Charcoal Black). A notable feature of the palette was the absence not only of blue but also of green and purple, and all the brighter, florid pigments. As a classical root of Western painting, this four-colour selection has been much more enduring than has generally been acknowledged. (See Don Pavey’s Colour and Humanism, 2003.) Though no significant Greek paintings have survived apart from odd fragments, the ancient four-colour palette (the tetrachromatik√≥n) survived intact over some two thousand years. (It was responsible for the brilliant achievements of the Venetian painters of the later Renaissance and even revived by Cubist painters early in the twentieth century.)

The four-colour system was probably most appropriate to figure painting, though a tetrachrome painter would not have considered it entirely against his principles to use a bright blue or green for the local colour of a garment. Of all the attributes that a classical Greek artist might want to depict, the four earth-colours were all that were needed to represent any complexion of human skin. In the mid-fifth century BCE, the hair of Hermes, a masterpiece by Praxitiles, was painted with Red Ochre, though of course no trace of this now remains. A simple method for mixing the four earth-colours, known as the color simplex, was credited to the painters Polygnotus and Anaglaophon, but a later period was characterised by a blending of a number of pigments to make one colour, and the most eminent classical critics scorned the art that was characterised by its mixtures of many colors.  

So now it is my turn. Can I mix yellow ochre, ivory black, flake white and Indian Red and come up with something that halfway resembles a self portrait? Well, I am no amazing painter, but I wasn't completely dissatisfied with my attempt.

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